by Monika Skadborg
First, healthy crying. Then, attacking the climate crisis from all angles
The climate crisis is a wicked problem. It is set on course to kill a whole lot of people according to the WHO. And I am just little me, so what can I do about it? Cry? Become a lobbyist? Join the climate strikers? I chose to do all of the above. Attending the Oxford School of Climate Change as well as the webinars from Oxford Climate Society has helped me do better at all three.
The hole in the ozone layer was one thing. An uplifting story in a way, because it is the best example of all of humanity coming together against a global deadly problem and solving it by mutual commitment and trust. I think about that whenever I’m done crying and need some hope to get back to work. But saving the ozone layer only took phasing out a handful of gasses, and their alternatives weren’t even that much more expensive. Climate change is much trickier because the root causes are woven into the fabric of every part of our society. From what we eat to how we move around and how we build the buildings we live in. It seems impossible to purchase anything without getting a little bit of climate change with you in the basket. Everything is so deeply wrong, it’s hard to even think about. But we must think about it almost every day, since the system is everyone’s problem.
When something is everyone’s problem it often becomes no-one’s problem. My “green” little country causes the emission of somewhere around 0.2 % of the world’s greenhouse gasses. So, we barely matter, right? At least, as a climate activist I’m constantly told that by those who are against speeding up our climate action. They tend to forget we are also less than 0.1 % of the world’s population. We are, globally speaking, nothing more than a city. We are also among the richest, even I with my little student grant. Still, we act like we have a right to keep polluting this much, even though it literally kills other people?
But if we try not to overspend on the climate budget, someone else just will. We can’t expect any other country to change their ways, so trying to set a good example is just a waste of time and will lead those dirty foreigners to win more market shares. At least, that is our excuse to keep pushing oil, conventional concrete, and heart attack inducing amounts of bacon and butter onto the world market. We sell the greenest meat, right? At least if you forget about the amount of other people’s forest we pay for the destruction of, just to keep our pigs-per-area high and our bioenergy plants hot. By that same logic, I sometimes briefly consider becoming a heroin pusher. That must be morally solid. Because otherwise someone else will do it, and our money has to come from somewhere, right?
That is obviously total nonsense. So, what to do about the fact that our leaders act like it is true? First, some healthy crying of course. Because honestly, if you are not grieving the mass destruction we are already causing, you are not paying enough attention. Then, anger. Loads of well-deserved anger at all the folks who have more power than me but choose not to act. Then, action. I enrolled to become an environmental engineer. I really love my field of studies, but it takes 5 years, or 10.5 in my case with all those leaves of absence to do full-time NGO work. And even if I eventually get really good at science, it seems like our leaders do not care all too much about that. So, I became an activist. Demonstrations of the legal and maybe not totally legal kind. Letters to politicians and newspapers. Endless volunteer hours in green organisations or in the green parts of broader organisations. Workshops with business leaders and with school children. Speeches at the United Nations and minute taking in the global youth constituency of the UNFCCC. There is always much energy wasted on infighting over which types of actions are most effective. To me, it seems like we only ever get those in power to make changes, when we take all these actions at the same time and keep pushing relentlessly from all angles. Since everything is so wrong, every change that makes it slightly less wrong is worth something, from my diet to the free time I invest in shouting at the government.
My journey let me experience, and come to love, the diversity in youth organisations' different ways of contributing to solving the climate crisis. I started out in students' unions during the years where they became increasingly aware of their own role in solving this challenge. Then I became a youth delegate to the UN, after which I convinced the climate minister in my country to set up an advisory body for getting young people's input into the climate ministry. I have been chairing that body for two years, doing the boring paperwork part of empowering youth. I am now a board member of the European Youth Forum, representing over 100 different organisations such as youth councils, scouts, political youth parties and many others. I find it uplifting to see how they each contribute in their own ways to a sustainable future. This is the type of "attacking the problem from all angles" thinking I believe we need. And it is accelerating all around, hopefully even faster than climate change is. That keeps me coming to work.
Attending the Oxford School of Climate Change has been such a great help in my work. Since every sector needs to change, it is uplifting to see that every kind of science can do their part to help. Listening to statisticians, economists and philosophers is healthy for an engineer, and I promise to recommend it to my peers. Coming to the Oxford Climate Society webinars and diving a bit into the stories of indigenous activists fighting multiple layers of oppression while sacrificing much more to fight climate change than I have, was a healthy reminder. I, as a relatively privileged European, must keep fighting to ensure that we do better and stop screwing over the rest of the world. I hope working on the international dialogue and empowerment of youth organisations can help at least a little bit, as one of the many different angles we must keep pushing from.
by Eilidh Roberts (she/her)
Photo credit to World Bank Group
Hope, optimism and brightness are not words one would often associate with the climate crisis.
However, Emmanuella Onyeka, an active and forward-thinking Nigerian understands that to garner real change, climate-optimism is the only way forward. Emmanuella became involved in climate action through her university’s Society of Petroleum Engineers (for which she was general secretary) and was a finalist in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in ‘Good Health and Well-being’ and ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’ (goals 3 and 7 respectively), in which she developed a project which plants carbon-storing (sequestering) trees which would also improve food security, reduce coastal flooding and provide health benefits.
Equally energising are sisters Gauri and Purvika Awasthi, born in Kanpur, India but having also studied and lived in the US and the Netherlands. In 2016, when there were few sustainable fashion options, and those available were very expensive, they founded ‘The Vegan Wardrobe’ which focuses on sustainable, ethical and cruelty-free fashion through a number of intersectional projects, from clothes recycling to fighting against child labour exploitation and working in collaboration with organisations and universities.
Talking to both Emmanuella and the Awasthi sisters, one is struck by their energy and positivity as well as their achievements, inspiring in their scale and ambition. One thing ties all three individuals together – a hope to inspire and to show others possibilities for a better world – both in terms of climate, and other socio-economic issues.
Inspiration forms an important part of Emmanuella’s story. She first became committed to climate action after volunteering in sustainability projects, where she met others who also wanted to make a difference, it is this mutually energising community which seemed to propel Emmanuella. Her passion opened doors into the world of environmental action –as she worked in various projects as general secretary of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, she was given opportunities to further delve into sustainability-oriented projects when people recognised how interested she was.
Not only is it evident that passion propelled Emmanuella in her own work, but she also emphasises that how she lives and the environmental work she does is oriented towards inspiring others too. In fact, she insists on the importance of individual climate action – although large-scale impact is important, you must ‘practise what you preach’. Especially because if those around you see you take more sustainable action in your personal life, she says, they will be more likely to take sustainability seriously and also make these changes in their own lives. Clearly, whilst broad-scale change is important, inspiring others on a personal level is also powerful. The Awasthi sisters take a similar approach, emphasising the individual actions we can all take to influence people who we are in contact with, and, despite the small impact of everyday changes, they garner support and attention for larger-impact actions.
Still, it can be difficult to even convince people of the reality of climate change, let alone to take sustainable action. As Emmanuella expresses, it is “frustrating to talk passionately about something and not have people believe that it even exists”.
Gauri, who holds a graduate teaching scholarship at McNeese State University, in the US faced a similar problem, with little belief in the reality of climate change from students on her course. Yet, she found that after their state (Louisiana) was hit by ferocious hurricanes, the students were much more whole-heartedly committed to climate action. Therefore, Gauri advocates for personal relevance, like that made possible through individual action, to push climate change to the forefront of people’s minds
Still, in locations which, and for individuals who are already struggling to meet their basic needs, it can be (understandably) difficult for climate change, as intangible and global as it is, to be prioritised. Yet the interconnectedness of climate-related issues with other societal problems means that as one issue is tackled, the other is also confronted. This is exactly what The Vegan Wardrobe has done – in the case of fast fashion, the tangible problem of unethical labour practises can be tackled as well as unsustainable environmental practices. For example, the Awasthi sisters are looking into opening thrift stores in India (which are uncommon due to the social taboo against buying second-hand clothes if one can afford not to).
In Nigeria, where there has recently been an economic downturn and food insecurity is an important issue, climate change is also easily overlooked. Yet, as Emmanuella suggests, if tree-planting is prioritised (in the way her above-mentioned UN project advocated for), then not only is the agricultural sector positively impacted, but positive climate action is also undertaken.
Throughout my conversation with Emmanuella, as well as with Gauri and Purvika, the importance of multiply-impactful actions were clearly emphasised. Ultimately, the stories of these three inspirational women are steeped in hope. Their passion and drive and the far-reaching impacts of their achievements and goals are an inspiration to all of us. It is through these communities of energised people that we can truly build a global movement for positive climate action – whether these actions be big or small.